Spotlight On: Headline-Making RFRA Bills Nationwide

As state legislatures across the country begin their sessions, there are already almost 20 bills in 11 states that would either create or amend an existing RFRA.  Today we highlight RFRA bills that have been making headlines.  

First, some background on RFRA and state RFRAs:

State RFRAs, in some form or another, are modeled after a federal law of the same name that authorizes religious exemptions to all federal laws and policies. Although the federal RFRA was originally intended to protect genuine religious freedom, many are now trying to use the law to override nondiscrimination protections and deny women access to or insurance for reproductive healthcare.

State RFRA bills generally authorize religious exemptions to each and every state law. When they mirror the federal RFRA, they introduce the same risks that the federal RFRA now does. Some state RFRA bills contain broader language than the federal RFRA, which, of course, creates even greater threats that they will be used to harm others in the name of religion. Regardless of their specific language, nearly all state RFRA bills these days are accompanied by anti-LGBT rhetoric and are meant to prevent women from obtaining insurance for or accessing reproductive healthcare

 Let’s take a look at current RFRA legislation:

Indiana’s RFRA Bill is Set for a Hearing on Wednesday

Last year, Indiana ignited a national firestorm when it adopted its state RFRA. Part of the uproar was due to the concern that the bill, and legislation signed by Governor Mike Pence, created a license to discriminate. Governor Pence then persuaded the legislature to adopt new legislation that would prevent the law from being used to discriminate in some instances. But the “fix,” did not go far enough: the current Indiana RFRA still allows religiously affiliated organizations to use RFRA to try to trump non-discrimination laws and lacks language ensuring that it won’t be use to deny women access to healthcare.

Shockingly, Senator  R. Michael Young wants to take on the state RFRA again this year with his bill, SB 66. This bill would repeal the RFRA passed last session and replace it with a RFRA unlike any other in the country. SB 66 would ensure that the state treat “the right to worship” and “the right to freedom of religion” (among other things) “with the greatest deference.” The language is so broad and vague, it is unlikely anyone knows what it means or how courts could interpret it. But it is clear that this bill would strip even the minimal nondiscrimination language that exists in the current law.

The Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee will be hearing this bill on Wednesday, January 27th.  Stay up-to-date on the status of the bill here.

New Mexico RFRA is Already Dead

Fortunately, some legislators inthe Governor of New Mexico were was smart enough to realize that its RFRA bill, HB 55, a bill that would have expanded their existing RFRA and increased the ways in which it could be used to discriminate against or otherwise harm the people of New Mexico, was a bad idea and have unofficially killed the bill.  HB 55 would have: (1) explicitly allowed for-profit companies to use the RFRA to obtain religious exemptions and (2) permitted people and corporations to use RFRA against private parties rather than just the government.

HB 55 faced bipartisan opposition from the start, which is likely what led Governor Martinez to decide not to keep he issue on the 2015 legislative agenda, thereby killing it for the session. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez saw the RFRA for what it is and what it could do to the citizens of New Mexico when he said he also opposed the bill, explaining: "We're going to protect our citizens and we are not going to let anybody discriminate against them for any reason whatsoever. It will not happen on my watch." New Mexico is safe from for-profit businesses, like, Elane Photography, a photography business that refused to photograph the commitment ceremony of a same-sex couple, from being able to use RFRA as a defense against nondiscrimination laws for another legislative session.